Blessed the Waters That Rise and Fall to Rise Again

by Nancy A. Hardesty

2004 EEWC Conference LogoEchoes from the 2004 EEWC Conference: Saturday night plenary address

Editor’s note:  In her address at the 2004 EEWC Conference in Claremont, California, Nancy told the story of how EEWC began, where it has fitted in with the three waves of feminism, how its vision and mission have expanded, what challenges it has faced, what we have learned and continue to learn, and how we might view the future. The title of her talk is taken from Carolyn McDade’s song, “Gratitude” on McDade’s CD, As We So Love.

Blessed the heron
flying in the wind
Blessed the waters
that rise and fall to rise again
Blessed the generations
struggling to be free
For deep though the sorrow,
shining in the soul,
Life lays a wing shaggy and whole.
 – Carolyn McDade, “Gratitude”
From her CD, As We So Love, © Carolyn McDade, 1996

We speak about subsequent “waves” of feminism. The nineteenth-century first wave was the topic of my dissertation and the book Women Called to Witness. Those women and men worked on some very basic goals. The abolition of slavery and woman’s suffrage were the most obvious, but they also struggled for women’s right to public secondary and collegiate education. For the first time in American history, last year women outnumbered men on college campuses by a wide margin — around 34 percent more. Significantly more women also received two-year associate degrees and master’s degrees.

Those early feminists also fought for a mother’s right to custody of her children, for women’s participation in church governance as well as ordination, for temperance, for raising the age of consent and marriage. Many of these we take for granted; others we’re still working on.

The second wave, during which this organization came into being, was propelled by such secular works as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; along with Mary Daly’s Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father; Virginia Mollenkott’s Women, Men, and the Bible; Paul Jewett’s MAN as Male and Female; and Letha Scanzoni’s and my All We’re Meant to Be.

The third wave is now in process, exploring new questions, aided by new technologies. The waters rise and fall to rise again.

Each wave wrestles with its own issues and faces its own opposition. The struggle for full equality for women has not yet been won nor are its gains secure. Within Christianity, one has only to look at evangelical fundamentalism, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox churches to see the need for continued work. Within American society and around the world, women and children are still very much at risk, despite the courageous work of women leaders everywhere.

Our Beginnings

This organization’s pre-history began, when in 1973 invitations went out to about fifty people, inviting us to a conference on Evangelicals and Social Concern to meet Thanksgiving Weekend at a rundown YMCA just south of the Loop in Chicago — actually right down the street from the famed Pacific Garden Rescue Mission.

At that time, I had just started Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I received an invitation because I was the former assistant editor of Eternity magazine and had taught English for four years at Trinity College. I had also taken courses at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And I was a woman. Only five or six of us were invited: Sharon Gallagher, editor of Radix magazine; Dr. Ruth Lewis Bentley, an African American sociologist who taught at Trinity and at the University of Illinois Medical Center; Betty Danielson, a social worker from Minneapolis; Chicago black activist Wyn Wright Potter, and Eunice Schatz, director of Chicago’s Urban Life Center.

Men invited included a few of the elder statesmen of evangelicalism, representatives from various major constituencies, and a group of younger and/or more socially aware, emerging leaders. The convening committee — all male — had prepared a draft of a statement for the group’s consideration. It included lengthy paragraphs on racism, poverty, economic injustice, and militarism, but no mention of women at all. Eventually I raised my hand and pointed this out. A committee — still all male — was delegated to redraft a more succinct statement. A member of that committee, Gordon-Conwell seminary professor the late Stephen Mott, leaned across the table and whispered, “Give me something to add to the statement and I’ll try to get it in.” On a scrap of paper I wrote: “We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to passive irresponsibility. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.”

Pursuing my own romantic interests at the time, I was not present when the new draft was debated. Eunice Schatz carried the cause in that debate — although she later told me that apparently we women all look alike because Carl Henry kept referring to her as “Nancy.” With the minor change of women’s “passive irresponsibility” to “irresponsible passivity,” my sentences were adopted and became part of The Chicago Declaration. Ron Sider later told me that when Billy Graham was shown the statement, he pointed to those sentences as the reason why he would not sign it.

At the end of the weekend, an expanded committee was formed to arrange a second meeting. I graciously volunteered to be the token woman on that committee, and when we met to organize ourselves, I again graciously volunteered to be secretary. (As we say in the South, “My Momma didn’t raise no fool!”) It was clear that they intended to widen the group only slightly, and women and blacks would have limited quotas. The secretary’s job included keeping the list and mailing the invitations. Those invited would have to qualify in some way as “evangelical leaders.” Among white guys, they wanted to invite those who were “socially progressive.” Among African Americans it was hard to find people who cared to be identified as “evangelical.” As to women, I think the committee considered the fewer the better.

But I had no intention of wasting a precious invitation on (1) a woman who could not or would not show up (Thanksgiving Weekend is not a time when most people want to go to a conference), and (2) a woman who did not think there was a problem with the status quo! So I started making my list and checking it twice, finding out who was naughty and who just wanted to make nice. I called more than a few people, finding women in positions of responsibility, checking out their viewpoints. I called women and said, “What are your plans for Thanksgiving? If invited, will you come?” Slowly my invitation list took shape. And then I had to make a strong case to the rest of the committee for each and every woman on my list.

My favorite story came out in the women’s initial sharing at the conference. I had sent an invitation to Fran Mason, then assistant editor of The Convenant Companion, official publication of the Swedish or Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago (some of you have read her work under the name “Maggie Mason”). She became an ardent supporter of Daughters of Sarah as well. Anyway, when the invitation arrived in her office, she showed it to her boss. He immediately insisted that there must have been some mistake, that surely the invitation was intended for him! He was still dubious even after she produced the envelope that also had her name and title on it.

Letha and I had started working together on All We’re Meant to Be in the fall of 1969 when I began work at Trinity. We worked on the manuscript for several years and then spent several more years finding a publisher. Word Books finally released the book in August 1974, just prior to the second conference of the group that had drafted the Chicago Declaration, the group which came to be called Evangelicals for Social Action.

The Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC) Gets Underway

At this Thanksgiving 1974 meeting, the group decided that after an opening session, participants would divide up into smaller “caucuses” devoted to various topics covered in the Chicago Declaration: racism, poverty, militarism, global economic justice, sexism. Hence, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. All but one or two of the women I invited became part of it. During our caucus sessions, several issues emerged. We called for inclusive language in all Christian education materials, and equal pay for equal work in Christian institutions. We endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and made plans to collaborate with the group of Chicago women giving birth to the feminist periodical Daughters of Sarah. At the conclusion, several people from the Washington, D.C. area agreed to host a conference focused entirely on women’s issues. Those brave souls included Cheryl Forbes, then an assistant editor at Christianity Today; Heidi Frost, on the staff of Faith at Work; Judy Brown Hull, associated with Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City; and Karin Granberg [Michaelson] of Wesley Theological Seminary.

Along with a few more recruits, they put together EWC’s first conference over Thanksgiving weekend, 1975, at the YWCA Camp. I have many memories of that conference, but several things stand out. First, we had no ordained women within the evangelical orbit. Second, many of us were just starting out on careers — Virginia Mollenkott had her Ph.D.; I was working on one; so was Anne Eggebroten.

Looking Back over 30 Years

When I think back over the past thirty years, what I see is the way that our lives have blossomed. Yes, many of us have followed traditional life patterns. We have been married and reared some wonderful children. Many of us have gotten divorced, been widowed, and sometimes remarried. We have shared life’s ups and downs. We have also pursued our other dreams.

I often tell students that when I graduated high school, the employment ads in newspapers were still divided between “Male Help Wanted” and “Female Help Wanted.” In the South they were additionally divided between “Colored” and “White.”

When I graduated from college in 1963, virtually no evangelical seminary was willing to admit a woman to its Master of Divinity program. Absolutely no one ever suggested that I might consider going to seminary — until I was finishing my Ph.D. in the mid 70s, and then a faculty member at Fuller Seminary told me, “Too bad you don’t have a seminary degree because we expect all our faculty members to have one.” Over the past thirty years many of those affiliated with EEWC have attended college and gained advanced degrees. Since 1974 many more denominations have ordained women. Half of seminary students these days are women. Several denominations have women bishops. In one denomination, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, fully half the clergy are women. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), 27 percent of the clergy are female. EEWC has been blessed with ordained women from many different groups. Early EWC member the Rev. Dr. Susie Stanley has lifted up the Holy Boldness of our foremothers and organized the Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy International. Others of us have found our ministries in other vocations — education, law, writing, publishing, medicine, computer science, finance, counseling, business, social service, and many more fields.

An Elite Organization

In many ways, EEWC has always been an educated, privileged, elite group of women. We’ve struggled with that. We’ve felt guilty about it; we’ve tried to change it. I think we also need to take pride in the fact that we have worked hard for education, ordination, professional achievements. We have worked hard to prove that Billy Graham was wrong when he told readers of the Ladies Home Journal in 1970 that “wife, mother, homemaker — this is the appointed destiny of real womanhood.” Graham himself would probably revise that statement today in light of the fact that most critics agree that his daughter Anne Graham Lotz inherited his gifts and is the best preacher in the family.

As privileged women, we have a responsibility to continue to publish, lecture, preach, and speak out professionally with the basic messages of biblical feminism. We need to remind Christian denominations in this country and around the world that ordination of women is a matter of responding to the Holy Spirit’s call, not a political marker to distinguish conservatives from liberals. We need to keep reminding people that both women and men, girls and boys, are created in God’s image and re-created equally by the grace of God manifested in Christ Jesus. Male domination is a sign of sin, not salvation. All people are called to submit to one another, to love others as themselves.

I live in South Carolina. The only national category in which my state consistently ranks near the top ( Number Three) is in the number of men who shoot their wives or girlfriends. And the majority of Christians in the state are Southern Baptists, who still argue that wives should “graciously” submit to their husbands. They are defending domestic violence just as surely as they defended chattel slavery 150 years ago. And that includes as well, those Christians who use Proverbs to argue their right to beat their children.

A Comprehensive and Inclusive Vision 

As the members of EWC explored biblical feminism together, it became clear to many of us that feminism was not just about us as women and us as generally very privileged women. With instruction from women of wisdom such as Virginia Mollenkott and Rosemary Ruether, we came to see biblical feminism as a much more inclusive idea, a much more comprehensive and global notion. Patriarchy has many tentacles. And one of its strategies is to divide and conquer, to set women against each other.

Our Jewish sisters pointed out early and emphatically that especially as evangelicals who said we took the Bible seriously, we could not build our case by arguing that the Jews treated women badly until Jesus came along and set them straight. Jesus was a Jew; Paul was a Jew. Their inclusion of women was not unique or novel but common practice in Jewish Amystical and messianic movements of the first century. The later author of the Pastoral Epistles, the rabbis in the Talmud, and later Church Fathers were the ones who circumscribed women’s roles. Christian and Jewish feminists can work together to appropriate the Bible. We learn from each other.

From the beginning, Evangelicals for Social Action and EWC have made very conscious and consistent efforts to combat white racism and to include African Americans and those of other ethnic groups. We have also respected the rights of other women to articulate their own womanist, mujerista, Asian, and other biblical interpretations and theologies. We have tried to reach out to people of all races and ethnicities. And we admit with regret that we remain all too Euro-American.

All of us have been very aware of the economic discrimination against women in our society. Despite women’s enormous gains in various fields of endeavor, in 1974 women earned less than 60 cents to every dollar men made; today women still earn only 76 cents on the dollar (67.5 cents if you compare all women’s wages to those of white men only). Many women still work in blue and pink collar jobs, what we now call the “service sector.” According to a recent article, pay equity will not be achieved for another fifty years! This is not just an economic issue, but also a very biblical issue. As John Dominic Crossan and Reta Finger have pointed out, Jesus had a lot to say about economic inequities, and so do other New Testament writers.

In just the past year we have witnessed women’s equality in the military. The line between combat and support troops was erased in a heartbeat for Jessica Lynch, Lori Piestewa, and Shoshanna Johnson. My community buried Kimberly Hampton, a bright and beautiful young woman, a graduate of Presbyterian College, and the first female helicopter pilot to die in combat. A woman general apparently was in command when the prison abuses — by both male and female soldiers — took place. Including women in the military has obviously not changed the insidious relationship between patriarchy and militarism.

From the beginning of this organization it was clear that a biblical feminism must include all issues of both gender and sexuality. We argued that this meant liberation for both women and men, boys and girls. And it began to seem obvious to us, as it had to secular feminists, that “women’s liberation” did not just apply to some women and not to others. And not all lesbians are non-believers — although one must admit that far too many Christian churches are working really hard to make it that way.

For me at least, homosexuality was a surprise topic at EWC’s Washington Conference. Virginia was asked to do a workshop on the Bible and women. I was asked to do one on women’s friendships. We agreed to share both workshops, and we titled mine “Woman to Woman Friendships.” And I was naive enough to think that that’s all we were going to talk about! Of course it was Jeanne Baly’s fault that we got off the subject! Although Virginia and I had agreed to take written questions only, Jeanne raised her hand and insisted on telling us about a young coworker who had revealed to Jeanne that she was a lesbian. “What should I say to her?” Jeanne pleaded. Sitting right in the middle of that small but crowded room was one of my former Trinity students who had just informed me that she was a lesbian. And right behind her sat the conservative writer Elisabeth Eliot. I myself had been surprised to discover that year (at age 34) that I was a lesbian and had only very recently shared that information with Letha. Virginia and I had not yet discussed the topic. I was certainly not ready to acknowledge my own sexuality publicly, nor was Virginia. So our comments in the workshop were quite circumspect. Still they created quite a furor in the halls because we were not immediately and emphatically condemnatory.

The lesbians in EWC first met over a table in the food court and later in my hotel room during the 1982 Seattle conference, thanks to a courageous member of the Seattle planning committee and the help of gay men from a local church who manned the information booth so that no woman would have to miss a session of the conference.

The issues came to a head at Wellesley College in 1984 and then in Fresno in 1986. Before the Wellesley conference, the National Council formulated a procedure by which members could submit resolutions to the membership for vote. From its beginning EWC had consistently passed resolutions supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s ordination. In the election year of 1984 the Council itself brought forward resolutions supporting the political process and calling for the “elimination of military armaments and nuclear weaponry.” When Judy Jahnke and Sarah Smith submitted a resolution supporting civil rights for lesbians and gay men, some long-time members were alarmed. The resolutions were tabled.

Over the next two years, EEWC leadership moaned and fretted, dithered about what to do, but stubbornly resisted formulating a way of responding. The Council came to Fresno, so devoid of a plan that the Council co-coordinators each refused to chair the discussion portion of the membership meeting. I volunteered to do it, really assuming that it would be relatively uneventful. But at a meeting of lesbians and friends the night before the membership meeting, it became clear that many people wished to re-introduce at least some of the tabled resolutions. They set about formulating a strategy. The next day three resolutions were introduced: The first committed the organization to work for racial justice; the second deplored “violence against women and children and misuse of power within the family”; and the third acknowledged the lesbian minority within EEWC and took “a firm stand in favor of civil rights protection for homosexual persons.” The rocker caught the cat’s tail. Discussion was intense and lengthy. Various members threatened the membership. Some members expressed their fears that membership would cost them their jobs in Christian organizations — ignoring the fact that those organizations would instantly terminate any other employee honest enough to admit they were gay or even someone they suspected might be a lesbian. And many “Christian” organizations are still fighting for their right to continue that discrimination. I am very grateful to have tenure at a state university.

But in the end of the discussion at Fresno, very calmly and courageously by standing votes, the members of EEWC overwhelmingly endorsed all three resolutions. Many painful words were said, and some chose to leave the organization; some chose to form another organization for straight people only. We chose to be inclusive. But I need not tell you how much remains to be done in that area. We must continue to struggle against those who would draw lines of discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality. Virginia is correct when she denounces the binary construct and calls for Omnigender. And as Rosemary Ruether has argued so eloquently for so long: dualism is deadly. Patriarchy, sexism, and heterosexism must still be defeated.

More work to be done

We have made some progress. Several months ago Sarah Weddington was on an airplane. The young flight attendant noticed the pin she was wearing — a coat hanger with a red slash across it. Serving the second round of sodas, the puzzled attendant leaned over and asked, “Ma’am, what do you have against coat hangers?” Weddington, of course, is the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. Most of us have forgotten or never knew of those days when women who couldn’t afford to go to another country for an abortion had to take matters into their own hands. Whether we personally would choose to have an abortion or not (and many of us don’t have to worry about that anymore!), all of us should be able to agree that individual pregnant women should have the right to make that decision and not have that decision made for them by male politicians or preachers. Again, I need not tell you how strong the pressures are to take that freedom of choice away.

Our government has already taken reproductive freedom away from millions of women around the world by withholding our $34 million contribution to the United Nations’ Population Fund. Our government’s refusal has left millions of couples around the world without safe and effective contraception. The result is approximately 80 million unintended pregnancies each year. And many of these babies are born to AIDS-infected women. In sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of people with AIDS are women. I find it ironic that some evangelicals have recently discovered the AIDS epidemic now that it has devastated Africa. The late Ronald Reagan and his oh-so-Moral Majority ignored AIDS for nearly a decade while it was ravaging the gay community in the 1980s. Perhaps if those influential Christians had put less energy into attacking the disease’s victims and urged the government to pour some resources into attacking the disease, we might have found a cure by now. And still those same Christians now proclaiming their compassion for Africans with AIDS are fighting to keep condoms out of the hands of young people in this country and around the world. It’s certainly not a cure for AIDS, but it is one small, inexpensive, and relatively effective way to avoid exposure to the virus.

Being ecumenical

In 1990 we voted to become the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus — EEWC. And in more recent conferences we have chosen to include women of other faiths. “Ecumenical” was a dirty word for some of us back in the day when we were growing up in the OTC, the “One True Church”‘(of course, we grew up in different denominations, but each of them was the OTC). Now we have come to appreciate the strengths that our diversity of Christian communities has to offer. And as I have taught world religions over the past decade or so, I’ve come to a conclusion. If we truly believe there is only one God who created human beings in that divine image, then however people express their yearnings toward that One, they worship the One to whom we too are devoted.

Within our religious communities there is much to do. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has written a very insightful and provocative book titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die! While I do not agree with a number of his conclusions — I’m not as uncomfortable with supernaturalism as he is, although I do agree that it may be time to give up thinking theologically in terms of a three-storied universe! — I am certainly convinced that Christianity as we know it is in the midst of change — as it has always been. In this country the number of people who have no religious affiliation has doubled in the past decade to 29.4 million. The Barna Research Group found that a full 72 percent of Generation X, those born between 1964 and 1981, do not attend religious services at all. But that doesn’t mean these people aren’t spiritual or that they haven’t tried religious communities. Many are spiritual orphans. If we are to be salt and light in the world, we must expand our vision and our experience of the Divine. We must continue to work to eradicate the chauvinism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry that fuels racism, ethnic exclusivity, nationalism, and militarism. We must celebrate diversity and respect every individual, each culture, and all religions. Phyllis Trible taught us so long ago that Genesis 2 says we all have our origins in ha’adam from ha’adamah, earthlings from the earth, or as I’ve always liked to say, humans from the humus. We must realize that we are one with the earth; as we desecrate it, we desecrate ourselves.

We must continue to strengthen our analysis and refine our strategies. In whatever sphere to which God has called us and in which God has placed us, we must work for justice, for a better life for those who will follow. We each do our part. I think it was Reta Finger who reminded us a few years back that individually we don’t have to tackle everything. Maybe the Kin-dom of God is like a potluck. We each bring our own best dish, and the Spirit works out a healthy balance. If each of us keeps doing our best, working on our particular project, we can make the world a better place. Justice will roll down like water.

Looking back, looking ahead

Finally, I’m a historian — I am very comfortable looking back. I’m not a visionary. I have no five-year plan for myself, so I certainly don’t have one to offer EEWC! I appreciate this opportunity to review our history, and I am blessed by your celebration of All We’re Meant to Be. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but let me just say, “Enough already!” We have been there, done that! If EEWC is to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, we need to stop looking backward and concentrate on the future. We have ridden the second wave of feminism. As we ebb back into the arms of Mother Earth, we know that the Third Wave is already rising again. Younger women are surging forward and will rise higher and sweep farther.

As a historian, I use the past to find perspective. Remember how long women worked, unsuccessfully, to pass the Equal Rights Amendment? That’s why I don’t get particularly alarmed by President Bush’s call for a marriage amendment. I also find in the past models of hope and courage for the future. And so I would offer two thoughts from my most recent study, Faith Cure; Divine Healing in the Holiness and Pentecostal Movements. (Yes, that is a shameless plug!) The book is about faith and healing.

If we are to find healing ourselves and to be a healing force in our world, we must abandon the gospel of negativity so many preach today. It seems that even those who rebelled against the petty legalism of their youth (we didn’t drink, smoke, dance, play cards, go to movies, or join secret societies) have adopted a larger legalism, trying to encode their beliefs in legislative agendas and Constitutional amendments. We need to identify ourselves as Christians by what we’re for, not what we’re against. We need to embrace the people of the world rather than denounce them and distance ourselves from them. Jesus did not say that people would know who were his disciples by the rules they kept, the moral proclamations they made, or the degrees of separation they maintained from everyone else. Jesus said that true disciples would be distinguished by their love for one another, for their neighbors, and for the Holy One. Love is our positive and healing message.

And the other healing power is found in faith. In scripture, faith is not a set of beliefs but an abiding relationship with the Divine. The women and men I describe in the early divine healing movement found physical health through a profound faith in the power of God at work in their daily lives. If this organization is to survive and persevere; if we as individuals are going to sustain our work of love and justice, we need to know that behind the ebb and flow of waves and water there is a Power, an Energy, a web of Wisdom we call God, creating, empowering, sustaining. “Blessed the waters that rise and fall to rise again.”


© 2004 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in two parts in the summer and fall 2004 issues of EEWC Update, Volume 28, Numbers 2 and 3.

Nancy A. Hardesty
Nancy A. Hardesty was a founding member of the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today organization. She spent much of her career in higher education. From 1988 to her death in 2011, Hardesty taught in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Clemson University in South Carolina. Before arriving at Clemson, Hardesty also taught at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Hardesty’s first book, co-authored with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, was All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today published in 1974. The ground-breaking book has gone through several editions, and was noted by Christianity Today, in its 50th anniversary issue, as one of the top fifty books influencing the evangelical movement. Hardesty subsequently wrote other books on topics ranging from women in the Bible to inclusive language in the church.


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